“Building an organization is an intoxicating substitute for being a church, because it allows us to work toward being a church without really being a church.”
Chad Hall authored a provocative perspective on “church” in 2004 (see below) that I think provides a helpful perspective for those of us seeking change in how we “do church” in North America. What Chad’s perspective opens up for us is the ability to separate in our thinking the institution from the church. This distinction may at first appear as a distinction without a difference but once you think it through it is very significant.
One of my initial thoughts is to move toward a more accurate use of terms – perhaps we should begin calling our local church institutions “catalyst” rather than “church?” No doubt at first this would be awkward… First Baptist Catalyst, Redeemer Catalyst, etc. but it may help us refocus our effort and passion and appreciate the proper role and limitation of the institution. Furthermore, this refocusing is especially important during this time of liminality. We are quickly leaving modernity and the institutionalism of that period to a time that will likely see the church carried without strong association with institutional structures.
Why Church Isn’t Really a Church
“Anyone familiar with Bill Hybels has heard it: “The hope of the world is the local church.” On dozens of occasions, I heard the phrase and nodded in agreement. The phrase led me to commit or recommit myself to serving the local church. The phrase caused me to weep. The phrase gave orientation to my life and to my work.
But lately when I hear it, my response is different. No commitment. No tears. No direction. Just a one-word question filled with doubt: “Really?”
I’m starting to believe the hope of the world cannot possibly rest with the 501(c)3 not-for-profit religious organizations dotting our landscape and holding themselves out to be “churches.” It just can’t be true.
It’s not that I doubt God or the unique and saving nature of Jesus; I truly believe Jesus is the hope of the world. I do not doubt that God’s plan is to empower and inspire ordinary people to carry the life-giving message of salvation. I do not even doubt that communities of believers are the God-ordained means for carrying out this grand plan. What I doubt is that what passes for “church” these days is the manifestation of Jesus in our world. I even doubt that my own church is a church.
Jesus died for this?
Why all the doubt? Like other congregations, the one I serve strives to be an authentic church, but we get in our own way. Simply put, our chief aim is not to connect people to God, each other, and the world, but to build an organization that does so. The distinction is subtle but significant.
Building an organization isn’t an inherently evil thing to do, nor is it necessarily counterproductive to spiritual aims. Indeed, modernity gifted humans to become more efficient and effective in building organizations. Businesses, governments, and charities give us meaningful and productive work when they are better organized. There’s nothing wrong with that. But building an organization is not the same as being a church, even if the aim of the organization is to do the work of Jesus.
Building an organization is an intoxicating substitute for being a church, because it allows us to work toward being a church without really being a church.
The pain of all this strikes church leaders especially hard. Deep down, not one of us believes the organization we serve is a true expression of authentic Christian community. Each of us thinks, “THIS is what Jesus gave his life for? No way!”
We are right to be suspicious. But we are also knee-deep in this pursuit of church and we find it easy to ignore the obvious sense of dis-ease that bugs us. After all, we attend seminars and conferences, we read books and go to school, we pray and fast, we develop our leadership and preaching skills-all to the aim of organizing the church so that it can express and grow the Kingdom of God. But we never get there. The organization gets tweaked, and sometimes overhauled. We try an array of programs, processes, personalities and powerfully alliterated points. But a real live church is still beyond our experience. We just cannot organize well enough to accomplish the goal of building a church. The best we will do is to build an organization that is well-structured, well-balanced, and well-aimed at being a church. But the organization will never be a church.
Whatever your definition of authentic church is, you know the congregation you serve is not there. Nor will it ever get there. Read the rest of this entry »